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In Cairo, a Political Choice Becomes a Test of Character for Egypt’s New Military Leader

Gen. Sisi holds de facto power but with elections looming must now decide whether to legitimize his rule with a presidential run

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A street vendor in Cairo sell portraits of Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Nov. 19, 2013. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
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On the desk of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s military chief and de facto leader, sit the daily newspapers, full of adoration from the masses and the political class alike, all telegraphing the same message: Run for president; the nation needs you. There is even a lawsuit that would force him to run. Next to the papers is a book, given to Sisi by his American counterpart, Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel. The book is Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, in which Hagel highlighted the part about Washington giving up power after his second term: a message, wrapped as a gift.

That Sisi is considering a run when elections are held sometime next year is certain. His answers in interviews have left the door open for his candidacy, and he has done nothing to stop the mass hysteria surrounding the possibility. Leaked excerpts of his interview with Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s leading daily newspaper, show a man worried about his future and uncertain about which path to take. He understands better than anyone else that no matter his official title he needs to shape the country’s future—and, specifically, to make sure the Muslim Brotherhood never returns to power. For him it’s a personal issue as much as a political one: Today, tomorrow, or 20 years from now, a return of the Brotherhood to power could cost him his head. He needs to move forward carefully. To run or not to run? Either choice is potentially risky.

Chuck Hagel’s gift highlights the thinking in Washington: Sisi’s decision is monumental and will have grave implications on the future direction of the country and its imagined transition to democracy. In reality, the decision’s consequences are minimal. Even if Sisi takes Hagel’s advice and decides not to run, he will still be the man President Barack Obama has to deal with when it comes to Egypt. The country is not transitioning to democracy, and it hasn’t been at any point since the Jan. 25 revolution. Anti-Americanism, conspiracy theories, and xenophobic nationalism are still the mode of politics in Egypt and will in time, just as they have done before, lead to grave consequences. Yet Sisi’s choice will yield a lesson for those whose job it is to watch what happens in Cairo about what sort of man this newly powerful stranger really is.

***

Looking back, Sisi’s rise to the status of his nation’s savior is nothing less than astonishing. Three years ago, few in the country, and no one outside of it, had heard his name—a family name that’s as diminutive in Arabic as it is in English. Soft-spoken, Sisi had a presence that hardly elicited the awe people felt when they met, say, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sisi’s rise in the military was that of a competent officer, with a final promotion to director of the military intelligence just in time to be the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which inherited control of the country from President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, after the uprising now known as the 25th of January revolution.

Even under SCAF’s rule, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, Sisi was unimpressive. Since he was head of military intelligence, and Tantawi’s personal protégé, the failures and mismanagement by SCAF were his. If anything, he made a notorious name for himself when he admitted virginity tests had been administered to female protesters. But he was SCAF’s point man to the Muslim Brotherhood, and his religiosity impressed the man who became Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, after elections last year. In August 2012, after little more than a month in office, Morsi fired Tantawi and appointed Sisi his minister of defense. Little did he know that he was replacing a petty bureaucrat carrying the rank of field marshal with an officer who turned out to be much more ambitious and politically savvy.

Morsi paid a heavy price for his mistake: On July 3, his still-fresh presidency was overthrown, and Sisi became Egypt’s ruler. True, a figurehead—Adly Mansour—was appointed president, but hardly anyone in the country pays him any attention. The civilian politicians who serve in the Cabinet are equally unimpressive. The one man who today commands the people’s worship is Gen. Sisi—or, as one popular poster fondly called him, the “Field Marshal of the People.” His picture and name are everywhere, from chocolate to jewelry. He has been declared the savior of the nation—ironically not only from imagined international conspiracies, but from the nation’s own democratic choice of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government a year earlier.

Few leaders in Egypt’s history have ever enjoyed the adoration of the masses Sisi commands today. In 1919, amid the revolt against British rule, the laurel wreath was placed on the head of an unlikely hero: an old politician by the name of Saad Zaghloul, who became the idol of the masses seeking independence despite being a protégé of Lord Cromer. Some 30 years later, Nasser—a young officer fascinated by Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author—believed his country and himself destined to play a role. Both episodes ended with disasters. The politician and his comrades failed to achieve independence and sowed the seeds for the end of Egypt’s liberal experiment, and the young officer’s spectacular adventure brought Egypt its worst military humiliation.

For a while, the masses were tired of heroes and adventures. Dreams of glory had brought nothing but pain. Anwar Sadat changed the country’s direction from East to West, and for decades the country lived under the wings of Pax Americana. Hosni Mubarak embodied the sentiment best. A technocrat at heart, he inspired no one and was content in managing the country’s decline. But temptation always lingered in the background. The country’s view of itself was always larger than its capabilities. The revolution ignited the fervor once again. The international bureaucrat Mohamed ElBaradei, who came from the IAEA, inspired a few, but he could never connect to the land and its people. The fate of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was no different. “The spare tire,” as the people named him, was only a replacement for the original Brotherhood candidate, Khairat el-Shater. He became a source of ridicule instead of worship. The country has still been waiting for Godot. In Gen. Sisi it has finally found him.

The pundits declared it the second coming of Nasser. The love of the masses is enormous, but it comes with a price. The pressure mounts on the anointed hero to start leading. For now, the seat of the pharaohs remains empty, its puppet occupant only a temporary passerby. It awaits the General, but the General remains hesitant.

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In Cairo, a Political Choice Becomes a Test of Character for Egypt’s New Military Leader

Gen. Sisi holds de facto power but with elections looming must now decide whether to legitimize his rule with a presidential run